Blog / Culture

The Rich Tapestry of Taiwan’s Place Names, Part 2

Many places in southern Taiwan, like those in the north, have names that trace their origins to the island’s Austronesian indigenous languages. For instance, the historic port town of Lukang, often referred to as ‘Deer Harbour,’ may have derived its name from the herds of sika deer that once roamed the nearby lowlands. However, modern scholars believe that it’s an interpretation of the original toponym, Rokau-an, adopted by Han Chinese settlers in the early 17th century.

Beigang’s Name Evolution

Beigang now a quiet town, except during festivals connected to the worship of Mazu — was once a bustling trading centre. Indigenous inhabitants initially named it Ponkan, which the Han people later transcribed into Mandarin as Bengang, literally meaning ‘stupid harbour.’ During Japanese rule (1895-1945), the authorities regarded this as an undesirable toponym and they changed the first part of the name from ‘stupid’ to ‘north,’ resulting in the current name, Beigang.

Renaming During Japanese Rule

In addition to the rebranding of what’s now Beigang, Japanese colonial rule led to numerous town- and district-name changes. Kaohsiung was previously known as Takau, which could be interpreted as ‘Beat the Dog’ in Mandarin. This was considered inappropriate for a rapidly developing industrial and shipping centre, so the Japanese authorities replaced it with characters signifying ‘Lofty Hero,’ pronounced Takao in Japanese. The Mandarin pronunciation Gaoxiong became standard after 1945, but Takow has seen a resurgence in popularity due to its historical connotations. 

Cultural and Religious Influences

Some place names reflect cultural and religious traditions. Several mountains and hills across Taiwan bear the name Guanyinshan, honoring the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Namasia District in Greater Kaohsiung was originally known as Sanmin Township, in honour of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, the official ideology of the Republic of China (which took control of Taiwan in 1945; it remains the country’s official name). The district’s new name is meaningful is both the Bunun and the Tsou indigenous languages, signifying ‘better and better’ in the former and the valley’s main river in the latter.

The Legacy of Salt

In Taiwan’s history, salt was a precious commodity, produced by evaporating seawater in coastal ponds and transported inland on ox carts. Yanpu, a town in Pingtung, earned its name as the ‘Salt Entrepot,’ given by Han pioneers who exchanged salt for indigenous land. Yanhang, a vibrant neighbourhood in Greater Tainan, bears a name that means ‘Salt Business’. 

Exploring these unique place names and the stories behind them is a fascinating aspect of touring Taiwan. To plan your visit to any of these locations or other destinations across Taiwan, reach out to Life of Taiwan today.